Study of the Voluntary Public School Choice Program Interim Report (2007)

Executive Summary

The National Evaluation of the Voluntary Public School Choice (VPSC) Program

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) 1 expanded public school choice opportunities for students, particularly for those attending schools in need of improvement. The new accountability requirements in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) (Title I, Section 1116[b]) require districts to offer public school choice to students in Title I schools that are identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring as a result of not meeting state definitions for adequate yearly progress (AYP) (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). 2 In addition, Congress created the VPSC Program (Title V, Subpart 3, Section 5241) to support the emergence and growth of choice initiatives across the country. The purpose of the program is to assist states and local school districts in the development of innovative strategies to expand options for students, and to encourage transfers of students from low-performing to higher-performing schools.

The VPSC Program functions independently from the choice provisions in Title I and provides funds to a relatively small number of sites across the country. In October 2002, the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) awarded five-year grants to 13 applicants. Awards ranged in size from $3.4 million to $17.8 million for an average award of $9.2 million, or approximately $1.8 million per year. The VPSC-funded sites included: the state of Arkansas; Albany, N.Y.; Chicago, Ill.; the state of Florida; Hartsdale, N.Y.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; La Quinta, Calif.; Miami, Fla.; the state of Minnesota; Swanzey, N.H.; New Haven, Conn.; Portland, Oreg.; and Rockford, Ill.

This report presents interim findings from the National Evaluation of the VPSC Program, covering the first three years of implementation, from the fall of 2002 through the summer of 2005. Over a five-year period, the congressionally mandated evaluation is charged with assessing the program’s progress in meeting the goals and fulfilling the intent of the VPSC Program’s legislation. As directed by Congress, the evaluation addresses three central questions:

  1. What are the characteristics of the VPSC Program’s grantees?
  2. How and to what extent does the VPSC Program promote educational equity and excellence?
  3. What academic achievement is associated with the VPSC Program?

Question one relates to basic descriptive information about the program sites and their implementation strategies, including activities related to community outreach and capacity-building within participating schools.

Question two relates to the stated goals of the VPSC legislation, which stipulated four priorities in the selection of sites:

(a) Provide the widest possible choice to students in participating schools,

(b) Promote transfers of students from low-performing to higher-performing schools,

(c) Include interdistrict partnerships to allow students to transfer to a school in another district from their original school, and

(d) Require sites to use funds to support student transportation services or costs (on the assumption that this would more likely enable students to attend more distant schools).

The extent the program met the goal of providing “the widest possible choice to students” is measured by the overall student participation and participation rates in the VPSC Program’s choice initiatives. When available, the report also presents data on the numbers of transfers from low- to higher-performing schools, and evidence of interdistrict partnerships and transportation costs. By design, these priorities do not necessarily reflect the only ways in which an evaluation could define “educational equity and excellence.” However, they link directly to the legislation’s stated priorities for implementation. Exploring other definitions and collecting data to address them were beyond the scope of the evaluation.

Question three pertains to Congress’s interest in having the evaluation investigate the achievement outcomes associated with the VPSC Program. The current report includes a discussion of the efforts to date to collect achievement data. The results of this analysis will be presented in the final report.

Main Findings

The evaluation is based on a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods (see chapter 2 of this report). Among other features, it draws from multiple data sources, including site visits, surveys, program documents, and student achievement records. Data collection will continue through the end of the five-year grant cycle, which ends in the spring of 2007. The evaluation data suggest the following interim trends regarding the VPSC Program’s choice activities, student enrollment, and progress on its priorities.

Characteristics of the VPSC Sites

The 13 VPSC sites are located in various parts of the country. Ten sites are located in predominantly urban areas, two in areas that cover both urban and rural regions, and one in an entirely rural area. Ten of the locales represent a residential population of over 100,000 people each. The public school student populations in the communities are mostly diverse and poor. Nonwhite students comprise over 60 percent of the student population at seven school systems represented by the sites. Similarly, over 60 percent of the students are eligible for the Free and Reduced-Price Lunch program 3 at seven of the sites.

The sites vary greatly in the design of their choice initiatives; they differ widely in the number of students served, the number of participating public schools, and the capacity to accommodate transfers. In addition, they differ by how they define choice zones and manage the flow of students among participating schools. Despite this variation, sites have pursued some common paths.

First, although unique, school choice initiatives tended to fall under four major categories based on how sites have defined choice arrangements and directed the flow of transferring students:

  • Five of the sites designated specific schools to be either sending schools or receiving schools but not both.
  • Five sites defined initiatives whereby the same schools could be both sending and receiving.
  • One site established a within-school initiative, in which students choose from education programs within the same school and do not transfer between schools.
  • Two sites have initiatives that have involved a mixture of the first three types.

Second, all sites focused on two core activities throughout the implementation process: 1) engaging parents and community members; and 2) building capacity at schools to attract and accommodate choice transfers. As part of the parent and community activity, sites’ actions went beyond a rich array of outreach, marketing, and communication efforts. The sites also engaged parents and community representatives in developing and implementing the choice initiatives.

As part of the capacity-enhancing activity, sites started new academic programs or subjects, purchased supplies and equipment for schools, and provided professional development to teaching staffs. However, none of the sites reported hiring more staff or taking other steps simply to expand the number of seats. The sites’ capacity-enhancing activities were therefore not necessarily accompanied by an increase in the number of seats or classrooms at the receiving schools.

Educational Equity and Excellence

The first three years of the VPSC Program has produced considerable participation on the part of enrolling students. The sites’ experiences have been as follows:

Participants. The numbers of eligible students, applicants, and enrollees in the VPSC Program all have increased during the first three years of the program.

  • The number of VPSC sites enrolling students each year has steadily increased. Out of 13 sites total, the number has increased from five the initial year, to ten and 12 in years 2 and 3 respectively.
  • The capacity within sites to accommodate greater numbers of enrollees has increased over time, from 1,087 students in 2002–03 to 7,445 students in 2003–04, and to 16,163 students in 2004–05 (see figure 1).

Participation rates. Over the VPSC Program’s first three years, there were also increases in the rates of participation, measured by three ratios, the number of: 1) enrolling to applying students; 2) applying to eligible students; and 3) enrolling to eligible students.

  • The proportion of enrolling students to those who applied increased from 47.4 percent in 2003–04 to 56.9 percent in 2004–05.
  • Similarly, the proportion of eligible students who applied increased from 2.1 percent to 3.3 percent during the same period.
  • The enrollment-to-eligible ratio showed the greatest rate of increase, from 0.5 percent in 2002–03 and 1.0 percent in 2003–04, to 1.9 percent in 2004–05. This rate is similar to those experienced at the outset of other public school choice initiatives, including those implemented under the Title I accountability provisions in the NCLB Act of 2001.

Variety of choices among educational programs. Progress has been substantial on the first of the four priorities. The variety of educational programs within the VPSC-funded initiatives and among other non-VPSC initiatives at each site has meant that students can choose from a large and diverse number of academic programs.

Exhibit ES-1: Eligible, Applying, and Enrolling Students During the First Three Years of the VPSC Program (Fall 2002 to Summer 2005)

Transfer of students from low-performing schools to higher-performing schools. These transfers are likely to have comprised only a portion of the students enrolled in the VPSC initiatives. First, fewer than half of the VPSC sites have created choice arrangements with predesignated sending and receiving schools, and of these, only four have limited their enrollment to transfers from low- to higher-performing schools.

Second, the majority of the sites permit a mixture of transfers that are not limited to students moving from low- to higher-performing schools. Moreover, the sites permitting this mixture have not always distinguished the portion of transfers from low- to higher-performing schools. Of those that did, only 5 percent of their students had transferred from low- to higher-performing schools.

Overall, combining these sites with those with predesignated sending and receiving schools, the low- to higher-performing transfers only represent 13.8 percent of the total transfers. However, the actual portion could be larger or smaller, depending on the nature of the transfers at the sites that did not track or document the pattern of their transfers.

Implementation of interdistrict approaches. Only four of the 13 sites provide interdistrict options, allowing students to transfer to schools outside their home district.

Student transportation services or costs. Relative to enrollment, transportation costs did not increase proportionately as might have been expected, as the VPSC initiatives permitted many students who were already attending distant schools to select schools closer to home.

Academic Achievement

The final report for the National Evaluation of the VPSC Program will contain results of the analysis of student achievement records collected over the entire period of program implementation. The analysis will look at both school and student level performance when possible, to assess the achievement outcomes associated with the VPSC Program.

  • Individual-Level Student Achievement Data. The evaluation will attempt to compare the achievement outcomes of students enrolled in the VPSC-funded initiative to a similar group of students who did not enroll. The analysis will be limited to sites that have detailed and accurate records for individual students enrolled in the program and those in the comparison group. In preparation for the final report, the VPSC sites are now receiving technical assistance for collecting individual-level student achievement data. However, there are several issues with data quality and reliability, which may restrict future analysis.
  • Systems-Level Student Achievement Data. The final report will also measure performance trends for schools participating in the initiative. The achievement outcomes of students in these schools will be compared to students in a similar group of schools not participating in the initiative.

Useful Choice Practices

A major motive underlying the creation of the VPSC Program is the hope that the sites’ experiences might serve as models to districts across the country wanting to initiate or strengthen their own public school choice options and practices. Even at this early stage, several potentially useful practices have emerged from the program. Part of the national evaluation’s work has been to document these and other workable strategies. These strategies include the design of choice initiatives; parent involvement in choice arrangements; and capacity-enhancing activities to augment or strengthen schools’ educational programs. In this manner, the VPSC Program’s experiences can ultimately help to strengthen public school choice initiatives across the country.


[1] The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L.107-110) amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

[2] The law requires that if all schools in a district have not made adequate yearly progress (AYP) for two or more consecutive years, the district shall, “to the extent practicable,” establish a cooperative agreement of transfer with other districts in the surrounding area (U.S. Department of Education, February 2004, p. 17).

[3] The Free and Reduced-Price Lunch program is part of the National School Lunch Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 26 million students each school day. Children from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. For the period July 1, 2004, through June 30, 2005, 185 percent of the poverty level was $34,873 for a family of four (USDA, 2004).

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Last Modified: 11/19/2008